Saturday, December 17, 2005 ... 11:16 PM
(Jesus Christ, I'm only halfway done with) Boney's Anachronistic Best of 2005, part three
4) Lightnin Hopkins
Lightnin Hopkins kept coming up in 2005. In the Spring, I bought the JSP boxed set of Lightnin's sides from 1946-1951. Five discs, 120 tracks. One hundred twenty. Later in the year, Oxford American made Lightnin the heart of their excellent Summer Music Issue, giving appreciation duty in the magazine to three different authors. Each of the other artists was given one author.
Like a lot of folks around my age, I imagine, I first heard of Lightnin Hopkins as the title of an REM song. It's an uptempo pop song, major chords, not a blues song. As far as I can tell, all the song has to do with the man is the use of his name and a Stipeian bead-string of rural Texas imagery.
Hound bark on the track
Hound crow hold onto your hat
Lightnin' won lightnin' won
Low lands timberlands bad lands bird lands
But it put the name in my head, and it's one of those names that sticks, rolls into mind while I'm washing the dishes or tying my shoes. I say it out loud: "Lightnin Hopkins." I like the sound of it. Early in my blues self-education (I'm at about a 4th grade level now), I finally picked up a vinyl double-LP called "Double Blues." The back cover is a B&W extreme close up of the old guy's face. It's meant to emphasize his rugged windcarved sunbaked features. Every pore is vivid. The wrinkles creeping out beneath his sunglasses, the beard stubble on his jawline. He seems to be made of dried river silt.
The first record starts with Lightnin telling a story of how, at eight years old, he built his first guitar from a cigar box, a wood plank, and some screen wire. He took the box down to where Blind Lemon Jefferson was busking and showed old Blind Lemon how he could imitate the great man's playing. The crowd set Lightnin up on the bed of a truck and he stood there and picked along with Blind Lemon. Eight years old. He plays acoustic and electric guitars throughout his career, to different effects. He uses dynamics dramatically: wide empty spaces between fast, chunky licks, and graceful jumps between hard and soft attacks. Willie Nelson might have learned his vocal phrasing from Lightnin's picking. Lightnin's style is complete and autonomous; he brings his sound to the guitar. Lightnin on electric archtop, I imagine, sounds not much different from Lightnin playing a cigar box.
The primary quality of his voice is that it's avuncular. Not creepy, as Mississippi John Hurt sounds. John Hurt is the short uncle who works at the green grocer and whom you don't trust alone with the kids. Lightnin is the uncle who can't hold down a job, shows up drunk to Christmas dinner, and tells dirty jokes in mixed company. His nephews idolize him. Like Clarence Ashley, Lightnin sounds, even as a younger man, ancient, wily, and bewildered. The range of experiences catalogued in his songs reads like a Flannery O'Connor anthology. In "Bald Headed Woman," he learns that his woman is fucking another man, and he demands that she return the wig he has bought for her. Lightnin frequently invented his lyrics on the spot (he called them "air songs"), but whether any single narrative is legit or apocryphal, he's so convincingly baffled at every misfortune, they can be nothing but true.
I have nearly 200 of his tracks on my shelf, and that's hardly a dent in the man's discography. His catalogue is oceanic, in its breadth and its homogeneity. He nearly always plays in the key of E. He opens his every slow shuffle, and there have got to be thousands of them, with the same double-stop riff on the second and third strings, and he comes back to this riff constantly over the course of a song. All his thousands of tunes, maybe without exception, end with the same lick. On the second string, the B, it's tabbed: 0 2 0 3. It's a common blues lick, a turnaround, landing on the flatted 7th, unresolved. Everyone uses this lick at some point. After singing "Happy Birthday," little kids like to hang these notes with the lyric, "And many more." But Lightnin uses it as a signature stroke. He signs every song with it, as Van Gogh signed his paintings Vincent.
With the JSP boxed set, you can listen to Lightnin all night long and feel as though you've listened to one very long tune. He's no songster. Compared with a Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin's vocabulary seems tiny -- though I have no doubt that blues scholars and Lightnin completists can give me a million reasons why I'm wrong about this (and probably everything else I've said here). It's true that if you listen actively, you'll pick up variegations. He's got boogies and slow shuffles. Sometimes he plays with a small band -- upright bass and drum kit, the odd piano, and he audibly baffles sidemen with his expressive timing and tempo. He uses floating blues verses, and the common lover-leaving, highway-side, down-on-my-luck subjects, but his lyrics are political at times. Jim Crow is a topic, and maybe couldn't not be for a black man in Jim Crow Texas without conscious resistance. Vietnam, Korea, and WWII are all lamented and feared, though not blatantly protested. But if you're not listening for the nuance of each song and putting blank space between them in your mind, they soon wash together. That's fine, though. It all makes good fucking listening.
I have favorite Lightnin Hopkins songs. It is possible to fish a few from the ocean. I like "War News Blues" for its foreboding, its twilit apocalyptic a-bomb anxiety. I used to dream pretty often of nuclear war, so it speaks to me. I like "Bring Me My Shotgun," because I get a good chill from songs about lovers wanting to kill each other. The connections, see, are completely subjective. All true, deeply felt musical connections are. Technique skill signficance -- blah blah blah. Above the rest, though, of all 200-some sides I've heard, I like "Standin on 75 Highway," from Double Blues, best. It's the slowest, most patient, most spacious in its delivery, haunted and lonesome. It's got its ear to that wall.
5) Guero, Beck (Geffen)
From the bloated, overindulgent, shockingly overrated mope-glut of Sea Change, Beck emerges a fit, mature artist. I've heard all the criticisms -- familiar safe retread, whatever. Fact is, like it or not -- and you might as well -- Beck is the voice of a culture. He's our laureate. Intimate and topical, current and eternal, he drinks his whiskey out of the Harry Smith grail, and I'll stand on Greil Marcus's coffee table in my Chuck Taylors and tell him myself.
Down on the corner
See me standing in a makeshift home with a dust storm comin
In a long black shadow
Pull a hammer from a coal mine down where your daddy was workin
Comb my hair back
Strike a match on the bathroom wall where my number was written
Driving on the sidewalk
lookin' back at the sky
It's burning in the rearview mirror
Na na na na na, I better go it alone
re: Guero. Absofuckinglutely.
Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"
Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?
The Greensboro Review
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central